Saturday, April 5, 2014

World Vision and Evangelicalism

I was going to write about something else this week, but I can't get this off my mind.  A lot of other people have blogged about it this week, and some more than once.  But even if I'm partly repeating what others have said, I have to speak up, too. 
It all started when Christianity Today published online a letter from the president of international charity group World Vision, announcing that it was changing its policy on allowing gay Christians who were legally married to be employed by their organization:
World Vision hopes to dodge the division currently "tearing churches apart" over same-sex relationships by solidifying its long-held philosophy as a parachurch organization: to defer to churches and denominations on theological issues, so that it can focus on uniting Christians around serving the poor. 
Given that more churches and states are now permitting same-sex marriages (including World Vision's home state of Washington), the issue will join divorce/remarriage, baptism, and female pastors among the theological issues that the massive relief and development organization sits out on the sidelines.
Two days later, amid a ferocious evangelical backlash, World Vision reversed its decision.  But not before ten thousand children had lost their sponsors. 

A few of those who dropped the children they were sponsoring have returned.  But apparently most have not.  

A lot of bloggers have written about this in the days after, but Elizabeth Esther best put the way I'm feeling into words:
[R]egardless of whether I agree or disagree with World Vision’s initial policy change, I have made commitments to three very precious and very REAL children. It is my DUTY to fulfill those commitments. . . Christians ought always disagree in the spirit of St. Matthew 18 and ESPECIALLY when the LIVES of CHILDREN are at stake. We ought to gently and wisely confront leadership–NOT encourage our fellow Christians to forsake promises to innocent and NEEDY children. (Emphases in original)
I think it was Matthew 18:15 that was probably in the front of her mind: "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother."  The passage goes on from there to advise on what to do if the "brother" doesn't listen.  Although this passage is really about interpersonal relationships and not about a Christian's interactions with a large charity organization, I think Elizabeth Esther was right that the spirit of the passage still applies:  when Christians disagree, they should try to work it out, not suddenly cut off relations with one another.

I do understand the perspective of many evangelicals on this.  My church background is evangelical, and it was through evangelicalism that I came to to the faith.  Evangelicals have always put a huge amount of weight on keeping to what they understand as an incontrovertible, biblical moral code. They give this at least as much weight as they give to foundational Christian doctrines.  To evangelicals, World Vision's attempt to take a neutral stance on the issue of whether gay Christians can marry same-sex partners was incoherent.  There could be no neutral stance in their minds: either World Vision was going to forbid same-sex married for Christians in their employ, or it was going to allow it.  Even if it allowed only one same-sex marriage among all its employees, this meant allowing same-sex marriage, and that was unacceptable.

Evangelicals felt they could no longer have anything to do with World Vision.  In their minds, this had nothing to do with hating gay people; it was all about biblical holiness.  Holiness is about reverence for God.  It's not a trivial matter.  A devoted evangelical will pay almost any price, sacrifice his or her own comfort, endure scorn, disapproval and anger from society, in order to obey what they believe God has commanded. I get it.  I really do.

But there's something being overlooked here, and it's a big thing.  It's the principle Jesus taught of mercy over sacrifice.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Paul articulated the same basic principle in 1 Corinthians 13:3:
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Though these two passages might not seem to be about quite the same thing, I think they are.  It's encapsulated in something my mother taught me as a child, and though I didn't always listen to her, this is one thing she said that has stuck with me.  She said, "People are more important than things."

By "things," she didn't just mean my toys and clothes.  She meant the things I gave my time to, the books and television shows I watched.  She even meant the rules for things like bedtime or homework that usually stood firm in our family. There were times that rules could be broken.

There were times when you closed the book and turned off the TV.

There were times when you didn't worry who that toy belonged to.

Sometimes it was because you had a relationship with someone, and that relationship called you to set aside special time for them.  A visit from far-away relatives.  Or a holiday.

And sometimes it was because even if you didn't know the person very well (or at all), there was someone hurting-- someone in desperate need.

People are more important than things.  Needs are more important than rules.  Mercy towards people is more important than sacrifice for God.

Many evangelicals have defended their decision to drop child sponsorships through World Vision by saying that World Vision doesn't give the sponsorship money directly to the child, but to the community, so the child won't directly feel the impact of the loss of their sponsor.  They say they are switching their sponsorship to another organization and another child, and that the important thing is giving, not what group receives the gift.

In response I'll cite some excerpts from the FAQs at World Vision's web page on How Sponsorship Works:
World Vision child sponsorship is an amazing model that allows for a one-on-one relationship with a sponsor, while pooling the gifts of all sponsors who support children in the same community so that we are able to provide long-term resources for lasting change. 
About 10 days after you sponsor a child, you'll receive a Welcome Kit in the mail with your child's photo and more information about sponsorship. Within 6 to 12 weeks, be looking in the mail for your first letter from your sponsored child. You can email and write back! 
Every year, you'll also receive an annual progress report with a new photo of your sponsored child and details about the progress that your child is making, as well as a newsletter of accomplishments in his or her community. (Emphases added)
Sponsorship is about far more than the money given.  It's about the relationship established with the child.  So I must ask some questions of those who have dropped their sponsorships, or switched to another organization.

How is your earlier-sponsored child to understand why you aren't sponsoring him or her anymore-- even if someone else steps in and becomes their sponsor in your place? Will this child really think, "The people who used to write to me and answer my letters have dropped me, but it was nothing personal, so it's ok"?
Is this new child you're sponsoring simply interchangeable for the earlier one? 

Will you miss the pictures and letters from the earlier child? Will you wonder over the years if he or she made it to adulthood or what happened to him or her?

Was this child a person to you?  Was (s)he more important than things

Evangelicalism claims to love children from the moment of conception.  So what about this child?

You see, it doesn't really matter how much you disagreed with World Vision's change of policy about gay marriage.  Ultimately, that change of policy was a thing. And the person who is your sponsored child was and is more important than that. As Elizabeth Esther said, there are ways of expressing disagreement, or even extreme disapproval, of something that you believe compromises Christian holiness, without compromising Christian love and mercy.

You might even have had a little mercy on World Vision.   It can't be easy to juggle all the differing beliefs and convictions of Christians from all the different branches.  Maybe they were sincerely trying to do the best they could with the real people, including those in same-sex marriages sanctioned by their own churches, who came to them wanting to help impoverished children and their communities.  

You see, I also understand the perspective of non-evangelicals on this.  And from where they're standing, this really does look an awful lot like hate. 

As for myself, in the most foundational ways I still am an evangelical.  I believe in the central doctrines, and I strive for personal holiness.  I stopped calling myself an evangelical, though, because I wanted no part of the whole "you disagree with us, so you're not one of us" thing that so many evangelicals are involved in.  And because I'm a theistic evolutionist, because I'm an egalitarian, because I question the literal interpretation of some Bible passages-- and because I wonder if the verses about homosexuality are really applicable to committed, monogamous same-sex Christian marriages-- many evangelicals do indeed consider me no longer one of them.

No matter.  You may not consider me one of you, but I consider you one of us-- all of us who call on the name of Jesus for salvation, who consider Him Lord and do their best to follow Him.  The tent of Christianity is just fine for me, even if I don't fit in a smaller tent inside it.  I'm grateful that my own church, which is evangelical in doctrine and practice (and whose motto is "We are not the only Christians, but we are Christians only") still seems to think there is a place for me.

Finally, for those who are troubled and sad-- even angry-- as I am, by the events of this last week, and who wonder if they should leave evangelicalism or try to stay-- I'll just repeat my mother's words.  "People are more important than things."  Labels are things, and evangelicals and non-evangelicals are all people.   Hebrew 12:14 says, "Make every effort to live in peace with everyone." True, it then goes on, "and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord."  But if holiness is obedience to God, then "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" is holiness too.

I don't know what any of you should do, except to love people and follow your heart, where the Holy Spirit dwells.

But let's all have mercy on one another and make every effort to live in peace.


rach.h.davis said...

"Evangelicals have always put a huge amount of weight on keeping to what they understand as an incontrovertible, biblical moral code. They give this at least as much weight as they give to foundational Christian doctrines. "

This describes a lot of experiences that I have heretofore not been able to put words to.

I wish you would write a whole post just about this, if for no other reason that to help those of us who grew up evangelical (and have never known anything else) understand it. It hadn't occurred to me before that this type of thinking is sort of unique to evangelicalism. At the same time, I would never have thought of that "moral code" as something that is given as much (or more) weight than foundational doctrines, and I'm now searching my lifelong memories to see if that's been true in my experience.

I really wish you would elaborate on that, if you ever get the time and inclination, in another blog post. Thanks for always having great things to say!

Donald Johnson said...

Thank you KR, you speak from your heart and I appreciate that. I have the same perspective as you do on the issues you raised.

As I meditate on this, I believe there is a pernicious belief system that claims clarity in Scripture in an attempt to quench discussion but which is actually a mask to allow bullying behavior to try to enforce compliance with the supposedly clear interpretation.

What ever happened to the idea of "soul freedom" the idea that an individual is responsible to God to do their best to interpret Scripture, which is the contrast to the idea of a church Magisterium (teaching authority)?

Anne V said...

This is beautifully articulated, Kristen, and it communicates so well where my own heart has landed on this whole thing. "People are more important than things." Amen!!

Anonymous said...

Very nicely said, Kristen. I doubt the viewpoints of these Evangelicals you wrote about will change, though there is hope within the coming generations since young people see things differently.

It is too bad to be so focused on an ideology as to drop a sponsorship to a child simply because an organization, which focuses on helping the poor, has declared neutrality on this issue. To some groups of Christians, such as the United Methodists, this shift is welcome since it is more inclusive. The greatest principal that Jesus taught is following the way of kindness and love, and we need to reflect this in our daily lives.

When we were children, you and I attended a funeral for a Catholic mother and her little girl, who were our neighbors, killed in a car crash. I remember a song that was played at that funeral that stayed with me many years later. "They will know we are Christians by our love." To people of a different persuasion, when they hear of children abandoned by their sponsors due to an ideological difference, this appears to be the opposite of loving kindness and acceptance toward others. -- your Sis

Kristen said...

Thanks, everyone! Rach, I will consider doing a post soon on the Holiness movement in Christianity and its impact on evangelicalism. In the meantime, I found this perspective to be very enlightening, from the Jesus Creed blog:

WV, BBCs and JBCs

rach.h.davis said...

Kristen, I recently started a new blog about faith, women, and culturally relevant topics. Do you mind if I add you to my blog roll? :)

Kristen said...

I'd be honored, Rach.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone stop to consider the absolute sense of betrayal that those who give to World Vision may have felt when WV announced that they were changing their policy to embrace something (and, yes, it is an “embrace”) that donors believe to be 100% immoral? Many of these people, I’m sure, carefully vetted this organization before deciding to make the commitment to give their resources to WV. I think that WV is responsible for the negative impact that this has caused –100%. I don’t blame people for changing their support to another organization. Not one bit. If one of the charities that I give to decides to employ physicians who, along with providing care to the poor in other countries, also provide legal abortions in this country – I would pull my funding. There are numerous charities who would welcome my resources that would better reflect my worldview. I would regret that the charity made it impossible for me to support them – by supporting life choices that are not consistent with the values that were fundamental in why I originally gave to that particular organization.

Kristen said...

Annonymous - did you miss the part where I explained that point of view and said that "I get it"? I do understand, but I also notice that not once in your comment did you mention that "changing your support to another organization" in this case means abandoning a child, a real child whom the sponsor has developed a relationship with, for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with that child. What does the message the child will receive from this rejection have to do with the love of Christ? So I would say, those who feel they must stop donating to World Vision should definitely find some way to keep from breaking their relationship with that innocent child.

If you want to make this not be about the children, you are going off-topic, because the subject of my post was all about those children.

Kristen said...

I might also add that those who believe LGBT people should be allowed Christian marriage are also feeling betrayed. Really, World Vision was in a no-win situation here.

Kuudere-Kun said...

For me, being an Evangelical does not prevent supporting social justice.